Ascent – The Space Game aspires to be everything the game’s creators, James and Chris, wanted to see in a space simulator, but could not find in existing titles. This insanely ambitious massive multiplayer online (MMO) space simulator boasts the epic scale of titles like EVE Online and Sins of a Solar Empire but with a fresh focus. While most space sims function around, or at least feature, player versus player (PvP) combat, Ascent is truly all about exploration and expansion. Ascent is a player versus environment (PvE) space simulator which strongly encourages cooperation between players. It’s one of those games that look pretty intimidating to the uninitiated, but for fans of the genre, and especially players interested in non-PvP titles, Ascent stands out as something with enormous potential to satisfy the niche. The game’s journey, which began January 2013, has already seen the title grow and change immensely. I met with developer and programmer James Hicks to learn more about this truly unique title.
James Hicks: So Ascent is a lot like EVE Online but without the PvP combat. So you don’t have to just blow stuff up which, if you’re not into, is not a lot of fun. The story is basically that humanity has almost collapsed. We’ve gone backwards, we’re just barely surviving: there’s starvation and chaos and no real government. There are remnants of a military, but they’re not in control. No-one’s in control, and it’s the role of the player base, as a group, to come into that situation, stabilise it, end the starvation and start rediscovering the lost technology in fragments – it’s all over the place – and then start taking the population out of those chaotic, over-populated, inner-systems and repopulating out into the galaxy. It’s co-operative. There’s a lot of construction and colonisation, it’s a big city building game (as well as being a space sim).
Amelia Laughlan: So it’s designed to be played collaboratively, with a group of friends or can you also play by yourself or..?
JH: It’s an MMO, so a lot of people bring their friends in, but a lot of people also make friends in the game. We got really lucky with the community early on. We had a couple of really nice, cool people come in and they kind of built the community culture of the game from the get-go. When we released on Steam, they were the backbone of the community. They built it out. The no PvP works with that culture as well, because you aren’t really in competition with other players much. It’s more ‘help me to help you to help both of us’. That’s sort of what the game encourages.
AL: That’s really refreshing because I love games like Sins of a Solar Empire but in that title it’s very much like “You’re going to die, or I’m going to die!” There’s very little middle ground.
JH: Yeah, there’s no “How can we win together?”
AL: Yeah, I mean, there is a diplomacy option in that game but it’s so flawed compared to the combat options that no-one wants to play that way.
JH: I loved that game. It was a real ground-breaker.
AL: The scale of it still blows my mind whenever I boot it up. It’s so cool that I can be looking at things from entire star systems down to individual ships in my fleet.
JH: Yeah, I loved it, and its hybridisation of the concepts of 4X (a subgenre of strategy games in which players can ‘eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate’) and RTS (real-time strategy). It’s part of the inspiration for this. We have real time production going on and the players are able to build their own empire in space, so it’s really got that 4X kind of element without focusing on extermination.
So these blue lines are the stargates (between the stars) that came with the game, ones that we coded in, whereas these magenta lines are ones that the player base built by working together, and they’re huge, cooperative, mega projects so each one is quite an achievement. We have 270 billion star systems in the game; we’re simulating the whole Milky Way. Each star system and planet is unique. Planets all have unique rock and soil types, so they all have different resources which you can mine and grow. And that means that there is heaps and heaps of trade between all the systems. I’ll show you some of the building elements of the game.
So when you start the game it takes you through a flight tutorial which teaches you the game’s controls, and then it puts you into a storyline quest which takes you through the game’s features, one after another. So even though there is a lot of depth and complexity, things aren’t, initially, quite so confronting. So I’m going to take you through several weeks of gameplay in about 15 minutes here, so it’s going to be a bit like “What’s going on?!”.
AL: So is the concept that you are the team of people (who work your ship)? Not a whole planet, or a whole government – just your little crew?
JH: You are one person in the game. Each player has their own avatar that can only fly one ship at a time, but you (the player) can fly lots of different ships. You can actually hire player characters and get them to fly ships for you.
So this is the tutorial system or construction game that we use to teach the players what each building does, how to connect them up, how to support them and so on. So, for example, we’d place a grain farm based on how strong the resource concentration is, basically soil quality in this case. These other structures, things like water, power and residential structures, they just add bonuses to your production.
AL: So how on earth did you go about balancing all of this?
JH: So, to a large extent, it’s not balanced. I haven’t concerned myself too much with balance. Because it’s an open market, a lot of it balances itself, in a way.
AL: Because everybody can trade with everybody, so it doesn’t really matter which resources you are producing, because you simply can’t get everything; everybody has something nobody else has?
JH: Yeah, so there is that kind of specialisation. With some things we use the NPC (non-player character) market to always make sure there’s X amount of demand for something, at X price, to keep floors on the prices and ceilings in some cases.
AL: How much maintenance does it take for you to check what all the players are doing and decide whether or not their behaviour is acceptable within the game? Are you very involved with that process? Or do the players sort of manage themselves?
JH: They pretty much manage themselves, although I do a fair bit of, mostly tech, support when we have new players come through; especially after a sale. We’ll get a few hundred, or even a few thousand, new people come through, so someone will be bound to get stuck on something and—
AL: Oh! That was cool!
JH: Yeah, we’ve jumped into a new system. We’re in the outer systems now, and in the outer systems there’s NOTHING. There’s no structure, sometimes you land on a new planet and there’s no atmosphere.
AL: Just a total frontier.
JH: Yes, very much. Although, less so as they get more settled, more players move out there, and the outer systems start to become more like the inner systems.
AL: So how does ownership of the planets work? If somebody is the first to land on a planet is that considered theirs?
JH: So if you’re the first person who flies to a star system you are flagged as the discoverer and the system is initially named after you. It’ll be your name plus a number, assuming this isn’t the first star system you’ve discovered. When you land on a planet (for the first time) there’s not much in terms of ownership. Because the planets are actually earth-sized we don’t have much need for that kind of ownership. We do have a political system in the game, though.
When I first settle this planet (gestures at screen), assuming I’m the first person there, as soon I bring a population there, there are politics involved. The citizens have democratic rights and you can vote in a mayor for each colony, a governor for every planet and a senator for every system, and then one colonial president for the whole galaxy.
JH: And then, a planetary governor, for example, has the power to rename a planet, and there are different types of terraforming that they can do.
AL: And is that voted on by players? Or…?
JH: Yeah, so the players direct their colonies on how to vote. So, if I’m sharing this system with a few other players they all sort of get a say, based on the size of their colonies.
AL: Wow. That is incredibly ambitious. It’s awesome.
JH: Yeah, like I said it’ll seem a lot more complicated than it really is when you play because we’re speeding through so much content for this tutorial today.
AL: Yeah, because all these concepts are supposed to be introduced over weeks, right?
JH: That’s right, but it also depends on the pace you choose to play it at. So most colonies will build a stock market where you can buy and exchange things like food, in exchange for something like iron, which happens to be what we mine on this planet. Just recently, this year, we added “full disembark” so you can actually land and go and explore your colonies in first-person mode.
AL: And how long have you been working on the game overall?
JH: Two and a half years. We’ve had our artist, full-time, for one year, so the game used to be incredibly ugly, whereas some of it is quite pretty now
AL: (Seeing the game shift from third-person ship navigation mode into first person exploration mode) Oh wow! There you are. It’s very humbling! To see just one person in the scale of a game like this.
JH: So this is my colony, and when you’re playing in first-person mode there’s a transport system which allows you to travel around the colony (in game, it is looks as though you’re picking up your avatar and moving them around, but thematically the idea is that you’re using some kind of mass transit system) This is an entertainment centre, and any NPC who isn’t at home or work right now will likely be out at one of these. So we can go find a bunch of people in one of these.
AL: It’s so strange to see you moving a human sized character around after experiencing the scale of this game.
JH: It’s sort of the Holy Grail of this genre to have that whole scale. Of course, it creates all sorts of technical issues.
AL: Yeah, I bet.
JH: (Entering into conversation with one of the NPCs) so I didn’t want to do dialogue trees, as much as I like them. Instead we have a chat system and it’s quite compatible. Basically, I wanted to make it so almost anything you say to a person you could say to an NPC just by typing. (Types to ask the NPC what their job is) We’ve got incredible lag here (at PAX the Internet, even for developers, was swamped), so he’ll get back to us in a moment.
Another thing that we have added recently, in May of this year, is that I could hire him, and he’ll become crew on my ship. Then, I could take him to where I’ve got other ships parked, in a hangar or something, and assign him a ship, and then he’ll appear as an NPC pilot. (The NPC finally responds) so he’s a transport grid technician at those coordinates here on this colony, that’s what he does. So I could click on the ship and it will bring up a dialogue saying “Trade between this your colony and colony X?” and my new crew member will ask “So you want me to work this trade route?” and I say “Yes” and then he would trade between those two colonies using the ship I’ve given him. He’ll move whatever I’m trading with that colony.
The NPCs are only allowed to soak up half the market which means that there’s always stuff for PCs (player characters) to do. The other thing we just added recently is smuggling. So, for example, I could decree that, in this colony, “Meat is banned, you are all vegetarians now”. But then you could come and smuggle meat in and sell it, illicitly.
AL: That’s awesome. It’s really like Firefly.
JH: Yeah, we wanted that kind of feeling to be present in the game. We built the environment and then the players are in a sandbox where they can build the cities and the civilisation while other players, who aren’t interested in any of that, can just adventure and be a ‘Han Solo’ or a ‘Mal’, and just hustle around and explore.
AL: But there’s no central government with control, so you can’t really play a Star Trek style themed exploratory Commander role?
JH: Well, you kind of can. Within the existing (remnants of) central government there are organisations who you can work for.
AL: Ah, similar to Starfleet, but privatised?
JH: Yeah, so I (as a player) can set a bounty, for example an exploratory bounty, by setting parameters for the kind of planet I’m interested in and then when a player discovers a planet which matches my bounty I’ll be notified about that planet, they’ll get paid. I can then go and colonise it, and players tend to use that system a lot. There are some players who love exploring and there are some who want to create a colony in a specific kind of location.
AL: Cool, well I’ve got a few questions, if you don’t mind?
AL: There are a lot of space sims around at the moment. Stuff like Elite:Dangerous and you’ve got No Man’s Sky coming out soon, EVE Online, Sins of a Solar Empire et cetera. Space games of this scale are really coming into vogue, so, first, why do you think that space games are so fixed in our imagination right now and, second, what prompted you to make your own space game?
JH: I would actually have trouble explaining the phenomenon of why they’re back now because for me, they never left.
AL: Yeah, well thinking about Star Trek, Star Wars and our wider popular culture I guess that fascination, and in novels as well…
JH: It’s never gone away.
AL: Yeah. I’ve been reading some sci-fi novels lately and thinking “Wow, this is exactly the same kind of universe that people are envisioning in games.”
JH: Who have you been reading lately, out of curiosity?
AL: Iain M. Banks’s Culture series. His stuff is mega scale, I didn’t realise how interplanetary things are in those books, so that’s been a real eye-opener.
JH: Yeah, I don’t understand why it (interest in space games) ever left. I suppose big studios have fads and they don’t seem to have wanted to touch this genre until recently, and (the space sims) Star Citizen and Elite: Dangerous were both crowdfunded, right?
AL: Yeah, Star Citizen is a real bag of worms, isn’t it? I mean, your game is ambitious but you’ve got so much proof of concept when it comes to, well… everything. Star Citizen sounds impossibly ambitious. I don’t know how they could make that. Having made Ascent, do you think Star Citizen is even possible to deliver?
JH: Yeah, I actually wrote an article about that. Yes, I think they can do what they’re setting out to do but it may well end up costing way more than they are trying to make it for and it may end up taking a lot longer (than planned). But, as to, why am I doing this, I have always had a vision for this game since playing Frontier: Elite II in the ‘90s. In that game you could do a lot of this stuff, but not build anything or have the kind of technology I wanted.
AL: So you aspire to fill in the gaps of what you wanted to see in that kind of game?
JH: Yeah, so I’ve always had that vision, and then when Elite and Star Citizen made their announcements, they left out all the sort of things that I really wanted to see, and so I thought “No-one’s ever going to make this” So I went “Right, let’s try it!”.
AL: Cool! Thank you so much for the chat.
JH: No problem!
Ascent – The Space Game is currently available for early access on Steam.